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The Road Not Taken

Earlier today, I made the case that the negative tone of the Pennsylvania primary campaign may actually turn out to be favorable to Obama if it serves to depress turnout among those voters who are least inclined to turn out — most of whom are probably predisposed toward Clinton. However, that does not necessarily mean that this was the best possible strategy for Obama in the bigger picture.

Consider the case made by Tad Devine in today’s Wall Street Journal. Devine argues that there is a possibility that Barack Obama will upset Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania — because Democrats will come to a collective decision that it is time to conclude their nomination process:

Three months and much brawling later, Democratic voters nationwide are ready to stop the race, and, Devine says, those in Pennsylvania may well decide they’re the ones to do it. Obama is ahead in convention delegates, and Clinton has virtually no chance of overtaking him. Devine applies his theory, and this time the outcome is the opposite of New Hampshire’s: Undecided Democrats break for Obama.

“Even though the polls, the demographics of Pennsylvania, and political factors like endorsements and a closed primary would lead inevitably to the conclusion that Hillary will win,” he says, “primary elections are sometimes decided by more intangible factors, like the gut feelings that voters have about the candidates, which choice empowers voters the most, and the state of the race. I think that may be happening in this primary, and Obama may be able to win because of it.”

This thesis had crossed my mind on a couple of occasions — nor is it entirely orthogonal to the low-turnout, Clinton/negativity fatigue scenario that I outlined earlier. However, on balance I would reject it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t think that voters are naturally inclined to behave as a herd. But secondly, it does not seem like Obama has really laid the groundwork for these seeds to germinate.

Specifically, Obama has not made a direct appeal toward party unity. What would such an appeal have required?

1. Make the case: Obama win = Democrats win. High-profile surrogates — and maybe even Obama himself — could have pressed the case that an Obama win in Pennsylvania allows the nomination race to end and for the party to begin focusing on defeating the Republicans in November. This argument requires a lot of dexterity to make — and among other things, runs the risk of raising expectations. But as Devine opines, it is also potentially quite powerful.

2a. Disengage from Hillary Clinton. As Chris Bowers notes, every time the Obama campaign directly engages Clinton — in a debate, in a memo, on the stump — it legitimizes her continued presence in the race. So, the strategy would involve essentially depriving Clinton of oxygen, and letting her try and suffocate herself. This runs the risk of making Obama appear to be dismissive and arrogant — which is why it would be very important to couch it in the following terms:

2b. No negative campaigning — really. The Clinton campaign has fairly pressed the case that Obama’s rhetoric about running a different type of campaign has not always matched his reality. By keeping direct criticism of Clinton to a minimum — certainly no negative advertisements or mailers, and probably a more obtuse, Iowa-style approach on the campaign trail — Obama could look magnanimous, rather than arrogant, for brushing off Clinton. Of course, he would run the risk of looking like he wasn’t tough enough and prone to being Swiftboated (this almost pathological fear among Democrats is one reason why Obama, rightly or wrongly, has gotten a free pass on a lot of his scrappier campaign tactics). But there is still some wiggle room here: you can play a certain amount of defensive through surrogates, and you can make plenty of indirect criticisms of Clinton, perhaps hidden under the guise of criticisms of John McCain — again, more like Obama’s approach before Iowa. Moreover, while it was probably necessary for Obama to show that he could play hardball in the immediate aftermath of Texas and Ohio, he had an obvious opportunity to pivot back toward a more positive, unifying tone following his race speech.

3. Concessions on Michigan and Florida. Nothing makes you look more like a winner than being willing to spot your opponent a handicap. Now that virtually all of Michigan’s “uncommitted” delegates have pledged to Obama, the stakes frankly aren’t that high — a net swing of 57 pledged delegates to Clinton if Obama conceded to seat the entire Michigan and Florida delegations, which would still leave him 108 pledged delegates ahead. That 57-delegate spot could easily be paid back between superdelegates, depriving Clinton of the ambiguity that she needs to continue her campaign to the convention, and the ability to look like the presumptive nominee to the voters.

Undoubtedly, this is a less conventional, and somewhat less comfortable strategy than the one that Obama has adopted. But it might have done a better job of tapping into the psychology that Devine refers to, while also setting Obama up better for the post-Pennsylvania endgame.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.